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Girls and women are underserved in sport: Sport Yukon

Sport Yukon held a virtual event to celebrate and discuss girls and women in sport
Sarah Walz leads a softball training session in Dawson City. Photo submitted by Sport Yukon.

On Thursday evening, Sport Yukon hosted an event Celebrating Yukon Girls and Women in Sport.

Girls and women are underrepresented and under-served in Canadian sport as athletes, leaders and decision-makers, reads the event’s description.

The challenge ahead is to harness the power of sport so that girls and women everywhere can benefit and build a stronger, more equitable system for all Canadians.

Those who tuned into the presentation heard from two local coaches, Sarah Walz and Dan Johnson, who are doing their part to develop girls-only sport opportunities in the Yukon.

Getting girls involved in softball

Walz moved to Whitehorse in 2017 and since arriving in the territory has been interested in developing an all-female softball program. That dream came to fruition this year with the inaugural all-girls softball division in the Whitehorse Minor Softball League.

“This past winter we did some all-girls indoor softball programming,” said Walz. “We didn’t have the intent of running the league before April.”

After the winter participants expressed their interest in playing in the summer, Walz said feelers were put out to see the interest in an all-girls league.

“We put it out there to gauge the interest and the interest was really high,” said Walz. “We have over 50 girls on four teams. It’s super exciting. I didn’t expect to have this division this year so it’s awesome we were able to pull it off.”

As a former athlete and now a sports administrator, Walz said it’s important to keep girls engaged in sports.

“There is a lot of research coming out that’s showing girls are dropping out at the age of 14,” said Walz. “We want to keep them engaged and find the best way to do that.”

Girls have been able to play co-ed softball, but playing on all-girls teams gives the athletes different chances.

“It gives them the opportunity to feel more comfortable and it gives them a chance to try more of the sport,” said Walz. “They might not get that opportunity, through softball for instance, in our co-ed league to try pitching, catching or playing shortstop.

“In some ways, girls are hesitant to fail in front of a crowd and coaches being afraid to put female athletes in those positions.”

With the new league, Walz said girls are excelling at pitching, catching and shortstop.

The social factor is another big draw to sports for girls, said Walz.

“The social aspect is a lot bigger for girls than it is for boys,” said Walz. “Girls gravitate to sports for the friends and less for the sport. When they have the opportunity to be there with 12 other girls, it’s great because they can have fun and be active and they’ll probably come back after that.”

Walz said she hopes after her talk that people understand the “sheer importance” of giving girls opportunities to play with other girls.

“It’s such a difference and it is so important and we lose so many girls because we think ‘it’s sports, it’ll be fine,’ but it’s been shown that numbers keep growing when they get these opportunities.”

Dan Johnson speaks on girls hockey

Dan Johnson is a born and raised Yukoner who played minor hockey in the Yukon before leaving at 14 to play at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame.

When he returned he began coaching again and got involved in coaching female hockey because of his two daughters.

Johnson said girls’ hockey has been picking up steam over the last three years or so.

“There’s been a lot more eyes on women in sports in general over the last five years,” said Johnson.

Johnson attributes part of the growth to having the right people in the right places at the right time.

“We had Pat Tobler start a female hockey program with just female ice times,” said Johnson. “That got a bunch of girls involved that may not have been comfortable in co-ed.

“There is a lot of momentum and the right group of girls. Timing was a lot of it and really moving toward an all-girls environment has kept these girls in the sport.”

Johnson said “previously you’d see a significant drop off from atom (U11).” He attributes this to girls not having the same experience as boys around the sport — the dressing room, trips, hotels and restaurants.

“I think that’s a huge part of the sports experience no matter what sport you play,” said Johnson. “The stuff that happens around the sport and the relationships they build is why we do this.”

Like Walz, Johnson said the girls he coaches perform differently compared to when they are in a co-ed environment.

“The girls that I coach, they perform and act differently than they do in co-ed,” said Johnson. “In co-ed, they stay back, they don’t want to be in the play, they aren’t as aggressive. But, now they can be the star, they get to be the leader.

“They are being put into spots they wouldn’t be in, in a co-ed environment.”

The more girls playing hockey the more role models the younger players will have, helping the sport continue to grow from the grassroots level.

“I tell my girls you have three or four girls you look up to,” said Johnson. “We want the next group to have six or seven and the next to have 10 or 12 and keep it growing organically.”

With girls’ sport programs growing in the territory, Johnson said he’s glad his daughters are getting the same opportunities he received.

“I’m just happy my girls have a place to go and that’s more than just playing the sport,” said Johnson. “That’s the camaraderie, the dressing room, the dugout, in the same way I got to experience it.

“It’s an exciting time and I hope we can keep moving the ball forward and we are having a different conversation in the future than we are now.”

What does the data say?

A Gender Equity Action plan presented data outlining some of the inequities girls face in sports.

The information shows that out of 27 sport governing bodies, and almost 11,000 participation counts, 55 per cent of people in sports are male.

The data also showed the inequities of girls and women in leadership and governance positions as well as the disparity in sports awards.

The vision of the plan is to see “all women and girls equitably represented, recognized, and served across all aspects of Yukon Sport, Recreation and Physical Activity.”

Contact John Tonin at